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Dangerous Rescue Mission Underway In The South Pole


Early this morning, a plane took off from the U.S. Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station. Onboard were two people who needed medical attention according to the National Science Foundation which runs the station. It is winter in Antarctica right now, dark all the time and really cold.

To hear how hard a rescue like this is, we called Jerry Macala. He was managing the station back in 2001 when the only doctor there got a gallstone. It was bad, so Macala called his bosses in the U.S. and requested something that had never happened before. Can we evacuate this man in the middle of winter?

JERRY MACALA: And I just said, you know, no one's ever explained to me why we can't fly a plane down here in the winter. And I don't ever want to look back on this year and think that there was something else we could have done to save him.

MCEVERS: And so how difficult was it, though, for the plane to get in and evacuate him?

MACALA: From the ground support side, it was unprecedented. There was no rulebook, and there were no instructions. It was extremely cold. It was - it's mind-boggling how cold it gets down there. It was minus-92 when that plane landed in 2001.

MCEVERS: And then once the plane did land, wasn't there some trouble getting it back up again?

MACALA: It's mind-boggling how cold it gets down there. It was minus 92 when that plane landed in 2001.

MCEVERS: And then once the plane did land, wasn't there some trouble getting it back up again?

MACALA: Right. You know, it's a small plane. They can't bring two pilots and, you know, double-up on the crew. They have a very minimal crew. And that crew has to rest when they land the plane, so it had a 10-hour rest time. And during that time, the plane sat on the ski-way, and unfortunately the skis had frozen down to the ski-way. And, well, we had a heck of a time breaking the plane loose.

MCEVERS: How did you do it?

MACALA: You know, it was just a combination of brute force, basically. Everybody pitched in, and we rocked the wings and hit the skis with a big piece of the wood. And eventually it broke loose.

MCEVERS: So what happened to the doctor who got evacuated? Is he all right?

MACALA: Yeah. He was not happy to put people at risk, but it was a historic operation for sure.

MCEVERS: Wow. So when you heard about this current evacuation, what did you think? You know, what's the first thing that came to your mind?

MACALA: Well, I'll tell you I'm very concerned about, you know, everybody involved in the evacuation. It's a risky mission. You know, I would obviously try and minimize the risks on all fronts. But it's pretty scary, you know, to be out there in minus-75 or 95-degree weather with the blowing winds. And the amount of effort that it takes to prepare the station for that kind of a rescue is phenomenal. It really took a lot out of my crew and myself.

In fact, I was out on the ski-way myself working on setting up the fueling and for the Twin Otter. And I spent a little bit too much time, you know, in the minus-90-degree weather and managed to do some frostbite on my feet. I wasn't sure if they were going to have to medivac me out of there with the doctor.

MCEVERS: Wow. So you're just thinking, like, not only is this particular mission hard, but it's going to be, you know, tough on them going forward.

MACALA: Well, it is, yes. You know, it's already pretty psychologically tough to be down there. In some ways, you feel like you're almost in sort of a cocoon because in many ways it's a very safe place to be isolated.

But you have your community, and you have your, you know, your friends. And there's reasonably good food down there, and you know, it's warm when you want it to be warm. So...

MCEVERS: Right, when you're not jumping on a plane.

MACALA: Yeah, yeah.

MCEVERS: And then when something like this happens it kind of breaks that spell.

MACALA: Absolutely, yeah.

MCEVERS: Yeah. Well, Jerry Macala, thank you so much.

MACALA: Thank you.

MCEVERS: Jerry Macala was the station manager in Antarctica from 2000 to 2001. He now lives in Santa Barbara. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.